What Is Marriage?

WhatIsMarriageWe hear lots of different definitions of marriage in the world around us. Some define marriage as a human contract that surrounds a romantic partnership to protect children and spouses from the effects of bad relationships. Others claim that marriage based first and foremost on the fact that a man and a woman form a “reproductive unit” capable of bearing children and those children as well as the dignity as well as the economic and physical security of both parties must be protected. (Cxref: Sherif Girgis, Robert P. George & Ryan T. Anderson,
“What is Marriage?”, Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Vol. 34)

Even though these descriptions more or less describe certain aspects of marriage. They do so only from a human perspective. While they may be helpful in political and legal discussions which have as their aim the curbing mankind’s sinful rebellion against God, they don’t truly describe God’s institution of Marriage.

Though the church operates within the world, we are not of the world. As such, we give deference not to worldly institutions or to legal and political discussions, but as the Church, we speak the word of God into the culture. While we need to be aware of the political and legal realities of the culture and society in which we live, we do not restrict ourselves to understanding things from a human perspective when God’s Word has spoken and reveals His mind on a matter.

When it comes to the topic of marriage, God’s Word clearly reveals His purposes and intentions. St. Paul teaches the real significance of this union of man and woman that we call, “marriage,” when he describes that relationship in Ephesians 5. There the Holy Spirit reveals through the Apostle Paul that marriage is God’s institution through which a man and a woman become a living witness to God’s loving and creative nature.

Paul points out that the definitional text regarding marriage, “A man shall leave his father and his mother and be united to his wife and the two shall become one flesh,” (Gen 2:24, Matthew 19:5, Mark 10:7, Ephesians 5:31), isn’t what we might initially think it is. While marriage is an institution for this world, the Holy Spirit reveals through St. Paul that marriage is not of this world. In commenting on this one-flesh union, Paul says, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:32).

In these words, the Apostle Paul, who was directly sent by Jesus to teach the Gentile church the truths of God, clearly states that this leaving of father and mother and being united in a “one flesh union,” is not first and foremost about the love and emotions of the two. It is not first and foremost about the begetting and rearing of children. It is not first and foremost an answer to the fact that, “it is not good for man to be alone!” In fact, the statement, “A man shall leave his father and his mother and be united to his wife and the two shall become one flesh,” is not first and foremost descriptive of human marriage at all! Rather, God’s statement that, “a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and the two shall become one flesh,” is descriptive of Christ’s relationship to His bride, the Holy Christian Church. It is applied to the human relationship of husband and wife as a reflection of that reality.

Earlier, in his letter to the Church in Ephesus, Paul details the roles and responsibilities of husband and wife in their relationship to one another. Yet, he doesn’t simply list a bunch of rules and guidelines and lay down the law concerning God’s institution of human marriage. Rather, he clearly relates that the contours of a proper the relationship of husband and wife have as their template the relationship of Jesus with the Church.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.
– Ephesians 5:25-30

Notice that Paul is speaking to “husbands.” Even though He is speaking to the Christian Church, he does not restrict his speech to “Christian husbands” or “You who are husbands and Christian.”

It is not merely that the relationship of a “Christian husband” to his wife reflects the self-sacrificing love of Christ for the Church, but that the intention of God’s institution of marriage is that each husband would reflect the self-sacrificing love of Christ for His bride, the Church and each wife would reflect the church’s unceasing devotion and submission to Christ by faithfully receiving from their husband the love, care and concern that he has for her. That this doesn’t happen is attributable only to mankind’s rebellious heart.

holding-the-bible-162055-mWe can see God’s intention for marriage as a witness of His love to the world exemplified in the prophet Hosea. As a testimony against Israel’s idolatry, Hosea was commanded by God to marry a prostitute. As Israel went “whoring” after the false gods in their land and giving themselves over to them even after God called them from Egypt and settled them in the land of promise, Hosea’s wife would abandon Hosea and return to her former way of life, being intimate with other men. At God’s command, Hosea retrieved her and bring her back to himself. He was to forgive her and cover all the debts she incurred during her waywardness, purchasing her even though she was already his wife. The entire marriage of Hosea the prophet is a lived-out parable of God’s love for His people of promise. The self-sacrificing love of a husband in marriage is to reflect this reality.

In Ephesians, St. Paul makes clear that for husbands, “We love, because He first loved us,” (1 John 4:19) also means that we love as He first loved us.

When we understand marriage in this light, even the great “Love Chapter” of 1st Corinthians heard at so many weddings is clearly a testimony to Christ’s love for a fallen humanity that we ought to reflect in our daily lives.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
1st Corinthians 13:4-7

This is the picture of God’s patient love for humanity. Though we rebelled, God is patient and kind to us, not giving us what our sin deserves, not even resenting us for our rebellion. Rather, He continues to uphold and sustain humanity – to love and care for us even while we are rude, arrogant, rebellious sinners. And, as a suitor attempts to woo his beloved, God seeks us out to show us His love and care and concern for us going so far as to die for us so that we may be brought near to Him.

“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And this is the model and template for a husband’s love for his wife so that the husband may witness to the world the unceasing love and care that God has for humanity.

When we understand this about marriage, it becomes clear why this institution is under continuous attack. Sinful human beings by nature rebel at the idea of submitting to the God who loves us and has created us. We wish to strike out on our own and define our own reality. We may want God around to swoop in and make our lives easier and better when we’ve made a mess of things, but as sinners born into a sinful world, we desire that God stay as far away from us as possible. So humanity attempts to hide the reality of God by destroying all those things that testify to His existence and His will for us. And few things do this like marriage does.

As Christians, redeemed by Christ and being made new by the Gospel, it is imperative that we know and understand these things and can speak these truths in the world. It is only the Gospel that can rescue from the decadence and destruction brought about by a relentless pursuit to eject God.

Therefore, while individual Christians exercising their duty to love and serve their neighbor by active participation as citizens and decision makers need to avail themselves of all the knowledge and research into the terrible effects that come about when God’s definition of marriage is trampled under foot and we must all seek to protect and preserve society, the Church itself must resist the urge to hide the Gospel under secular debates about the definition of marriage.

Because the Law of God is written on men’s hearts and can be seen in nature, appeals to “natural law,” do nothing but stir up the inward hate and animosity sinners have against God. It is only the Good News of Christ’s self-sacrifice that rescues wayward human beings that changes hearts and minds, giving them eyes to see God’s love for them that would incorporate them into the body of His bride, the Church.

Divine Service (Lamb)Moving forward, the Church needs to know, understand, and be able to articulate how fundamentally marriage is God’s institution that witnesses to His own love and mercy toward humanity in Christ. We need to be prepared not only to engage in the secular debate by showing that a lifelong marriage union between one man and one woman is what is best for society and the children of that union. But more importantly, we also need to be able engage in the conversation in such a way that witnesses to the glory and majesty of a Lord who loved us and gave himself up for us, that he might sanctify us, having cleansed us by the washing of water with the word,so that he might present us to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that we would be holy and without blemish.”

About Pastor Matthew Dent

I'm a life-long Lutheran who, prior to formal preparation for the ministry, learned most of my theology from good preaching, solid hymnody, and the consistent pattern of sound words found in the church's liturgy in a small church in Western, NY. A "first generation" pastor in my family, I took the "long route" to seminary, working in startups and small companies in the technology and internet sector for 10 years before completing my Bachelor of Arts at Concordia University, Ann Arbor in December of 2004 and continuing my studies at Concordia Theological Seminary, graduating with my M.Div. in 2008. I completed additional residential studies toward an S.T.M. at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and was ordained and first installed in July, 2009. Since January 2014, I have been serving Jesus' Church as pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Standish, Michigan where I live with my wonderful wife, Kelli, and my two kids, Jonathan and Natalie.


What Is Marriage? — 10 Comments

  1. The false teaching that human marriage derives from the relationship between Christ and His Church is sheer, unadulterated Romanism. It is specifically rejected by classical, Orthodox Lutheranism.

    Other inaccuracies in this article abound.

    When will Steadfast begin not to promote false teaching?

  2. @Robert #1

    Other inaccuracies in this article abound.

    If you want a discussion, cite your sources and identify the “inaccuracies”. If you’re just “driving by”, drive on.

  3. @Robert #1


    Nothing Pr. Dent wrote above would fall anywhere near “sheer, unadulterated Romanism.” If you deny the fundamental witness Christian marriage bears to the mystery of Christ and the Church, you deny St. Paul. Pr. Dent has done what most faithful Lutheran theologians have done when exegeting Scripture on a topic: he has applied the Christological hermenuetic that Jesus Himself established, when He said that all Scripture (including passages on marriage) testify of Him.

    And, while there is a universal use for marriage in the world given in the Garden, whose effects are the procreation of the human race through the one-flesh union of a man and a woman, the truth remains that the highest image marriage attains to, in reality, is bearing witness to Christ.

  4. Pr. Dent,

    Thank you for your article. I think perhaps you dismissed the use of Natural Law in public square discourse a bit too quickly, but I think I understand why you make the point you do. While Law never inspires love, it can be an effective curb for rampant evil, even amongst unbelievers… and I think that is the general use to which natural law argumentation is applied regarding marriage.


  5. Pastor Dent,
    Thank you so much! You have just described, 93% of the couples I grew up watching. My parents, most of my relatives & most of my parents friends (most were from Church or Family). This, is what I saw & knew a husband & well, fathers, to be. I have 2 boys. I have said since they were small, I have a duty to 2 little girls somewhere out there. As a Mumma, I need to make sure, I do this right, the 1st time. Those little girls will depend on it. I did, to the best of my abilities, our Faith, and prayers abounding, could do.
    Broken hearted & sadly, my boys, did not, have the example above, nor saw or grew up with. In spite of, all of that, they know this, in spades. Sin & one thing to add: Satan attacks too. That happens & it really should be stated. I’ve seen it done & yep, in my marriage & our little family too. (5/10/97 – 2/13/14)
    Even still, I am still faithful, to a spouse, who left, w/o cause.
    It’s a Covenant, broken in 1 of 2 ways: death or desertion. I not am dead, not quite yet, & I did not desert. That Covenant, is between one spouse & God Almighty, regarding the other. One may break, that does not negate the other’s. Mine is still, in place. Just from afar.
    This is, the first time, in my entire Church life, I’ve ever seen a Pastor, explain this, from what He expects, of a man, to whom has chosen, to be a husband. I have tried, yet, at the end of the day, I just can’t. I said my vows.
    Thank you & thank you for reminding me, of all the men, I knew, who were not perfect….yet were just what you wrote about.

  6. Thank you for this article. Like Brad, I believe you may have dismissed the public discourse on natural law a little hastily, but overall it was excellent. I had a pastor who once said that the “It is not good for (a) man to live alone,” if taken in the Christological sense, answers the question of why God created us – to be the objects of His love. Christ is “the man!” It changed my outlook on the marriage verses, and on my own blessed union. I thank God for confessional pastors who keep Christ at the center of their preaching, for this is the only Way hearts are changed.

  7. Brad & Lady L –

    It wasn’t my intent to “dismiss” the natural law discussion, only to put it in it’s proper perspective. Natural law is an incomplete revelation. It reveals “how the world works [NB: AFTER the fall],” but it does not reveal the “why.”

    So often we treat Nature and Natural Law as a separate revelation in addition to Holy Writ. If there is anything in this whole discussion that is “pure, unadulterated Romanism,” it is this idea of a revelation in Natural Law separate and distinct from the clear revelation in Holy Scriptures.

    The purpose of this post was to firmly plant our feet on the ground of the Scriptures. When working in the legal/political realm, it may be wise to choose to restrict our argumentation to what is obvious in nature. However, as much as is possible for us, we should have the entire picture in mind and be able to answer the “why” question when asked.

    “Why is Natural Marriage structured the way it is?” Nature’s laws can’t answer that. However, Scripture reveals that the answer is Christ and the Church. That doesn’t negate the natural knowledge of God’s operation of the world. Sociology and psychology are regularly showing that monogamous, heterosexual couples raising their own children is what is best for those children and society at large (because that’s simply how marriage works!).

    But Holy Scripture lifts the veil to reveal that the reason for this. It is not merely how God arbitrarily and capriciously ordained marriage to be. Rather, through this natural arrangement of a man and a woman, the Lord testifies within the natural order of creation about His love toward us generally, and Christ’s love for the Church specifically (“He who has ears, let him hear!”).

    As Lutherans, we ought not follow Geneva and advocate for the law to recognize natural marriage based on the theological reality. We advocate for it based upon the practical effects and application in promoting the general welfare of society. This is a proper use of the distinction of the two realms of God’s rule in the world (i.e., “Two Kingdom Theology”)

    At the same time, by only discussing the “natural law” reality, we fail to recognize the great witnessing opportunity inherent in this discussion and the opportunities to talk about Christ to our friends and neighbor.

    The fault for this falls squarely upon the Church who, even among ourselves to this point, seems to be predominantly talking about this issue only in regards to scriptural prohibitions and commands mixed with natural law along with political and legal terms. All this is the language of legislators, judges, academicians, etc., not the Church.

    I would not expect to hear the themes and ideas presented in this post in a political rally or in the presidential campaign or even in the “halls of power” in Washington. But it is definitely appropriate for the pulpit, Bible Study, private discussion, and the public discussion of the Church.

    What’s more, as the Church, we need to openly and unashamedly discuss this reality. In my not so humble opinion, we ought to be willing to draw the battle line clearly. Pagans are going to do, as pagans are going to do. And, the pagan culture hates traditional marriage and is on a mission to destroy it because the culture hates God and His Son Jesus whose love for humanity is revealed through traditional marriage.

    Unfortunately, rather than talk about Christ, so many churches teach on this subject as both Rome and Geneva do – attempting to establish a theocracy and codify “Christian morality” through politics and laws where Christ came to change hearts and minds by the work of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel (the accusation of the Law being an antecedent to the Gospel proclamation, of course).

    For this reason, I chose to give voice to the theological reality and give fairly short shrift to the “natural law” discussion. Not to dismiss it, but because this theological rationale has been all but lost in the discussion even among the faithful and the “natural law” discussion has received the majority of air time to date.

    In Christ,

    Pastor Dent

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